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Sashiko and boro

Sashiko and boro

You may have heard of the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is mended with gold. The breakage and subsequent repair are beautifully highlighted and celebrated as part of the history of the item rather than hidden away, and this gives broken items a second life instead of being disposed of. 

There is a related technique used on textiles. Sashiko (which can be translated as “little stabs”) is a type of Japanese embroidery used to reinforce or repair fabric items, and it is both functional and decorative. Boro is the piece of fabric, tattered or repaired. Traditionally white (but sometimes red) thread is used on indigo/blue fabric, to rework or reuse textiles through patching, piecing together and stitching. The aim of the repair is to fix an item, recreating it to be even better than the original, and there is plenty of opportunity to be imaginative and creative in the process because there are many stitch designs, lots of which are inspired by nature and tradition. Two examples of sashiko are pictured above, the first is of stitches on a single woven piece of fabric and the other is a child's sleeping mat.

The technique

It is possible to purchase special needles, single strand threads and craft kits to learn sashiko, but you can also use an ordinary embroidery needle and embroidery thread to try it out. Ordinary sewing needles and thread can be used for finer and more delicate fabrics.

The first step is to choose something that needs repairing and then to find a scrap of fabric to use as a patch. The patch needs to be of a similar weight and type so you should patch silk with silk, linen with linen or cotton, and denim with something equally hardwearing. I chose a pair of jeans, with a small hole in the leg to be repaired, and a piece of upholstery fabric for the patch.

The simple steps below make a cross-pattern stitch called jujizashi and here is how I followed them. The pictures (left) illustrate the process.  

Neatened the tear by trimming loose threads, and ironed the fabric flat;

Cut a patch and placed it on the “wrong” side, tacking it in place using some spare contrasting thread. (You could also use the thread to mark out the outline of the area you will be sewing with sashiko stitches, for example a square or rectangle.)

Turned the fabric to the right side, and began the sashiko stitches by sewing running stitches up and down over the damaged area in parallel lines. The stitches needed to be small and close together to make a firm join. (I found that running the needle through multiple stitches at once provided a straighter line than making each one individually, but this was tricky on denim. Perhaps a longer sashiko needle or practising on a lighter weight fabric would have helped.)

Repeated the stiches in the opposite direction to create the cross design. This reinforced the repaired area and helped to ensure the patch was very strong and wouldn't tear.

Removed the tacking thread when the repair was done.

The first attempts are clearly more functional than decorative but they did work; the repair is much stronger than any other method I’ve tried. The decorative aspect is somewhat “rustic” rather than precise and geometric, but practice (and perhaps buying a longer sashiko needle) will make it easier to achieve an even, neat finish.

There are many YouTube tutorials and books to provide tips and hints of what has become my favourite visible mending technique. It is simple, easy to understand and makes a sturdy repair, plus there is something restful about the order and repetitiveness of this traditional form of stitching. There is also a deeper philosophy associated with this work; both the thing being repaired and the person who is doing it will become something more and richer than they were at the start. By accepting and embracing change, each improvement and repair can be a thing of beauty in itself. A lesson for life and something that makes a once-broken item and its repairer utterly unique.